Being filmed as a research tool

I am writing this partly to clarify some of my thoughts. Yesterday, I went on a massive walk of about 10 miles, from my house, to the wonderful Mayfield Alpacas and back through all the parks from Endcliffe to Porter Clough. Anyway, on my way back through Endcliffe Park, I was accosted by some researchers from Sheffield University (I presume, although I don’t think it actually said on the consent form I filled in hastily), who were making a film and interviewing participants about their views on a recent report (perhaps this one?) which looks at Fairness and Equality across Sheffield, and encompasses things like indices of deprivation, educational attainment and so on in different regions of the city. Some of the statistics were astonishing. There’s a 10 year difference in a woman’s life expectancy between Hallam/Broomhill  areas (85) and Burngreave (75), and in the city, 57% of the population attain grades A-C at GCSE…

I am not sure which department the researchers were from – probably some sort of Social Sciences (and reflecting now, I think their ethical approval forms were well short of what I would have expected as I was given no website or email address to contact following the interview) – but the experience was one that really made me reflect on the nature of doing social research by interviewing, and also by filming this research, as a valid method. The process took about 10-15 minutes, during which time I was shown some statistics, maps, diagrams, and told a bit about the report. And then I was asked questions ranging from: whose responsibility is it to ensure fairness and equality? What do I think are the main causes of inequality? Had I experienced inequality in the city? Who did I think was most unfairly treated in the city? And because I had explained that I worked in the arts, I was asked some questions about whether I thought that the arts were a way of ensuring community cohesion and fairness.

These are all MASSIVE and problematic questions. Had I had half an hour, or even a day, to ponder, I think my answers would have been completely different. As it was, and perhaps because of some of the maps used and my scant knowledge of these areas, my answers tended to focus on people from some ethnic minorities as perhaps communities suffering the most inequalities within the city. I didn’t mention class at all, which I might have done given more time to think. And neither did I mention anything to do with income, money, taxation, access to jobs and benefits for disability and so on. All of which I might have done.

Now I have had time to think further, I think what I said, and what I assumed, was deeply problematic and I wish to some extent, I could retract it. I gave some sort of utopian answers to the questions: everyone should have equal access to opportunities. It is all of our responsibility. It could have been a party political broadcast. My own repeated view that education is at the root of all these issues now seems somewhat naive. But I do think that education is central. But by education I mean something very broad: something that includes our values, attitudes, beliefs. Not necessarily anything to do with school. And certainly nothing imposed through politicians.

Anyway, all of this was captured on camera, and will be made into a film that will go online. I am not sure when. Presumably it will be edited into soundbites. And taken out of context. And I might be represented as coming from a particular background when really I would not represent myself as such. I was not asked for any demographic information. But people will watch the film  and make their own judgements. And while I don’t think I said anything completely inappropriate, what I did say, does not represent what I really do think when given time to consider.

So does this then mean that the interview as a means of capturing ‘data’ is even more flawed than I thought. Yes, we know it can be fluffy, subjective (both in what is said and how it is interpreted): but this process seemed incredibly uncomfortable as one on the ‘other side’. I felt that the interviewers were making judgements on me and my background, whether they were or not. How did they select to interview me as I was wandering through the park? What are they going to do with my comments? It just feels somewhat exploitative and somewhat dangerous.

And I too have used interviews in my own research, so am I just as guilty? I think one issue of yesterday’s experience was the scripted nature of the experience. There was a list of questions, and no time to discuss, argue, deliberate further with the interviewer. Which makes it utterly unreal. Had I been discussing these things in a normal environment, my ideas could have shifted, I could have been persuaded of other things, another person could have brought in an additional idea and thought. But as it was, it was just me, and my spur of the moment thoughts after a very long walk on a Sunday afternoon. I don’t really want to see the final outcome.


Faith and Fear in Philadelphia

Last night I went to an absolutely brilliant event called ‘Faith and Fear in Philadelphia’ which was held at Sheffield’s lovely little art deco Library Theatre. Shamefully, I had never been there before, but it’s a wonderful venue which feels intimate yet has plenty of space for an audience of about 250. It was part of the excellent series of ‘In The City’ events, managed by my friend and former colleague, Amy Ryall, from the University of Sheffield’s Arts Enterprise team and organised by graduate intern, Nick Potter.

The month-long series of events is all about celebrating interesting and usually quirky collaborations between academics and others (I am not going to use the term ‘non-academics’), and engaging the public with these ‘non-traditional’ creative research projects. Public engagement is of course a big buzz word within universities (and many other institutions), at danger of just being another tick box exercise for the REF or for funders, but it strikes me that Sheffield’s approach is a really dynamic and creative one, in which risks are taken, projects are often shared in their incomplete and raw stages as processes rather than products, and playful and fun ways of doing new things are encouraged. It feels really fresh and as though these are projects that really matter.

So last night’s event ‘Faith and Fear in Philadelphia’ was a fascinating collaboration between academic historians and musicians from Americana band The Payroll Union who had come together to explore how we tell stories about the past, and particularly the history of Philadelphia in about 1840. Not a traditional gig, the evening began with various historians and musicians in conversation. They discussed similarities between the business of academic history and of music – or rather, song-writing. I was intrigued that most of these conversations focussed purely on narrative: both history and song were seen as story-telling devices, just different ways of interpreting people’s tales, or modes of research. While I agree with this to a certain extent, I think there are problems with making such a comparison. Not least the fact that (despite being a singer) I am generally not really someone who listens to lyrics of songs. So for me, they rarely tell a story unless I really really concentrate – and even then, the words might be blurred and misinterpreted. For me, I think there has to be something more than narrative in music. Of course some of the panel also pointed this out too: music is about emotional engagement. It does something utterly beyond narrative, beyond words. I can enjoy a song without having a clue what the words were. I was not sure if the same is true for history. Although as the evening developed, I think that thinking through history in an emotional way, rather than as it seemed, a series of facts, would certainly have made it more appealing to me when at school. I don’t really care what date something happened in, or even really what happened, but I am interested in how and why people responded to particular contexts.

Many of the comments in this discussion began “I am not a historian, but…” And this puzzled me. Why are we often so keen to identify ourselves through what we are not, rather than through what we are? I am not a historian, but… But more significantly, I found the implied separation between the ‘academic’ and the ‘creative practitioner’ quite problematic. There are hierarchical and value-based judgements at play here. Is the story-telling of the historian deemed more rigorous, or better, than that of the musician? Of course I think this project is working hard to break down what I would argue are false notions of a dichotomy between research and practice, the academic and the creative. But these things die hard. Why does it matter if I am not a historian? We are all storytellers.

So it was when the amazing Payroll Union began playing the 13 songs that they have written for this project, that I really began thinking even more. What a fantastic idea to not only be given the lyrics of the songs in the programme, to read through and learn from – but also to have these lyrics footnoted! A stroke of genius, and one that I really wish would catch on. Song writers are just that: writers, poets, storytellers – as well as being musicians. So to miss out on half their creation through not knowing what the words are, seems sad. Writing songs is a real craft, and here, the songs have been so deeply researched using historical documents, first person accounts, interviews, maps, that it was amazing to be able to read and take in the detail through this brilliant programme. I actually learnt more about American history and the city of Philadelphia last night – because of these lyrics – than I had ever known before. And it didn’t matter that they were imagined characters, not ‘factual’: in fact this made it all the more ‘real’. Better than history.

What I am not sure of though, is whether I learnt about the history through the music itself. The band is brilliant – fabulously talented musicians with great energy, passion – and the songs are fantastic. I loved them. I would have loved this gig even if I had no idea what the words were about, because the music grabbed me. If I had been at the End of the Road Festival, I could have listened to this all afternoon. But I wouldn’t have learnt anything about Philadelphia. And as the band themselves stated, the music itself is not authentic, for there are no recordings and no way of knowing what folk songs would have sounded like then. What is authenticity?

So here, I have questions again about the distinctions between academic research and creative practice… Where are the similarities in the ways of knowing? In ways of understanding the authentic? If I wrote a song about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, would that be doing the same sort of thing as this project did? Or if I made a collage of how I imagine Moyamensing, would that have been doing something similar? What is unique about a historian working with a musician? How would this project have differed if a photographer or visual artist were the collaborating partner? Yes, the outcomes would have looked different, told different stories, but they would have still told stories. I always end up with more questions than answers.

Anyway, whatever these are, it was brilliant, thought-provoking, inspiring – and amazing music. I look forward to buying my copy of the album and reading the lyrics at the same time. And I do hope that more bands will start sharing lyrics – with footnotes – at their gigs.


Granny’s recipe book

12 May 2014

Granny's recipe book: side view

Granny’s recipe book: side view

Today I am going to London to the Institute of Making, to take part in a workshop for postgraduate researchers, entitled ‘Restoration’. We have been asked to bring with us a broken book, one in need of restoration. I have brought three such books with me: two belonged to my grandmother and one belonged to her sister, my great aunt. The one I am hoping to work on this afternoon is my grandmother’s handwritten recipe book, dated from April 15th 1939, and with her maiden name, Vera Illingworth, inscribed into it in that familiar rounded yet somewhat spidery handwriting – the handwriting of an infant school teacher. She would have been almost 24 when she started writing in here, and I wonder if it is some sort of preparation for marriage and setting up home, having to use lots of recipes as she would have cooked every day. I wonder whether she wrote it with her own mother, perhaps using that tried and tested Yorkshire cooking of mother.

Granny's recipe book: open

Granny’s recipe book: open

It is a wonderful document of social history in itself. The first recipe is for ‘mock cream’ – perhaps the real thing being unavailable during the war years? A white roux sauce, with extra caster sugar and vanilla essence. I might try making it. The pages are covered in blots and splodges of ingredients, and the edging of the pages brown with grease from daily use and handling. Corn flour pudding, egg cutlets, and in another’s handwriting, rasin loaf, rice cake, lemon cake with a strange statement “They are called Lemon fingers” and then Granny’s own writing, ‘you “barmy beggar”‘!! No idea what this means or why it is in here in quotation marks. Some recipes follow from Mrs McMillan, whoever she was, including Wartime Steamed Pudding, made with self raising flour, suet, sugar, ginger, milk and vinegar. Sounds revolting. But also are Granny’s jam recipes – delicious and ones to remember to use – raspberry, plum and damson, strawberry, blackberry jelly, chutney, gooseberry. What is listed as Fruit Mousse, with an originator Aunty Roebuck (who I think kept chickens at Green Moor), is what Granny often made: I never really liked this combination of jelly and evaporated milk. And her delicious ginger biscuits too. Must make a batch of these. They are gorgeous and she always seemed to have a freshly baked tinful.
Behind the recipes are traces of other notes, additions in l.s.d. – no idea how to do such sums these days. Also inserted are cut out recipes from labels and magazines.
And as the book progresses, I think I recognised my mother’s writing – perhaps as a school girl, we have Aunty Marion’s sandwhich (sic) and Mrs Bond’s chocolate buns.
The back pages have a non recipe – the instructions for knitting a vest, followed by the months in which to sow, and how far apart to sow, various vegetables.
I now wonder, having read through while sitting on the train, whether the book actually started during Granny’s time training to be a teacher in Hull. I think this makes sense – it might be her domestic education notes perhaps, which she continued adding to over the next 30 years or so? Although I don’t think the dates tally, as she must have been younger than 24 when she did her teacher training. So perhaps my earlier thoughts, that it was just her recipe book, are more accurate. My mother might know.

My Granny's recipe book: front cover

My Granny’s recipe book: front cover

Monday is blog day…

So we’ll see how long this resolution lasts.  Feeling most terrible that I haven’t written anything since September.  Perhaps this is reflective of both how busy I have been, but also (and paradoxically) of how paralysed I have been in terms of writing research-related things…

Firstly, my attentions were on Mouseion: artists’ reflections on museums, an exhibition which I curated in the School of Museum Studies in Leicester, working closely with Cy Shih who designed the show, and which ran from late September 2012, until February 2013.  Having the opportunity to curate this show, which involved 7 artists from across the UK, all of whose work says something about museum objects and collecting processes, was a wonderful experience, but was one that made me realise how much I am missing actually being in a museum or gallery environment.  The grass is always greener and all that…  I know that the School of Museum Studies are currently investigating the possibilities of running practice-based PhDs (or some sort of title to be decided), akin to those at Manchester.  While I made a very conscious decision to do my own PhD full-time and to step out of the workplace for a while, I now wonder whether perhaps this option would have been a good one for me.  Not that it existed at the time.  I’m not sure, but I know that I am happy ‘doing’.

So, anyway, going back to things that have been occupying me: in addition to the exhibition, and my PhD Rep responsibilities (which were at their peak during the October first week of the academic year, and its preparation), I am also managing our PhD conference, Museum Metamorphosis – which will be held in November 2013, and for which we were successful in our AHRC funding bid framed as a ‘Collaborative Skills’ project working with Leicester Arts & Museums Service.  I have been involved in several other things including teaching in the department (for Dr Viv Golding’s Museum Education Option, for Dr Sandra Dudley’s Material Culture series, and for various MA ThinkTanks, mainly relating to objects and the exhibition), as well as marking MA practice essays and oral presentations. I am also working freelance for the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries as a Project Officer on the Museums, Health and Wellbeing Project in the East Midlands.  My role is focussed primarily on working with the Children’s Hospital Schools in Leicester to develop opportunities for access to museum collections through a website.  I’ve also done some bibliographic research work for Dr Sandra Dudley, for her forthcoming publication on displacement of objects and people.

Away from Leicester, my freelance work doing interpretation consultancy continues with object-based workshops from Lincolnshire to Cumbria.  I am still the GEM convenor for Yorkshire & Humberside: we held a very successful conference in Doncaster in November, Learning with ACE, about partnerships and new structures in place under the new governance of museums by the Arts Council, and after a series of monthly Study Visits during 2012, I am working closely with my co-convenor Sue Mackay, to plan for 2013.  I am also mentoring Odile Masia at the Imperial War Museum North for the AMA.  A busy life.  So where does the research fit in?  And why do I still see research as something of a luxury, something that shouldn’t possibly take precedence over all these over things – but that in reality – at least up until now – hasn’t done?

When I first set out on the PhD journey, I thought I would probably want to stay within academia, but I am now not so sure.


Stonehenge – but not as you know it

The more observant of you (who actually follow the blog – if there is indeed anyone out there?!) may have wondered why in my previous Newcastle post, in a link to the photos at the end, and at the end of the set of photos of Newcastle there were some images that were not taken in Newcastle

Jeremy Deller’s Stonehenge, Doncaster

But neither were they taken at the real Stonehenge – that part of everyone’s journey to the southwest along the A303 where traffic slows to a standstill as people take photos, gawp out of the windows, and sadly often have accidents.  (But also that mystical place of pilgrimage where druids and many others welcome the seasons, and ask all sorts of questions…)  No, these pictures were actually taken at Bentley Park in Doncaster, which staged Jeremy Deller’s Sacrilege Tour.  The stones have not been dug up and transported (how were they transported to the real Stonehenge in the first place?), but they have been turned into a life sized bouncy castle – Stonehenge on tour as part of the cultural bit of London 2012.  Touring to some rather unusual or smaller towns that may not necessarily spring to mind when thinking of Turner-prize artists, this was just really good fun – and extremely knackering!  I picked up Amy en route back from Newcastle (and ironically Gateshead is where Stonehenge had travelled from a couple of days earlier), and we went bouncing.  The sun stayed out; there weren’t many adults without children; we felt a bit silly, but had huge grins on our faces as we fell flat on them, tried to climb up the stones, laughed at dads throwing kids as though they were footballs into the ‘goal’ aka bouncy stone.  It was fun.  I am not sure how well publicised it had been in Doncaster – and although the views were perhaps less spectacular than when it had visited the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, nevertheless, everyone there was happy.  Let’s have more of this interactive, physical, fun art.  Stuff that makes you laugh.

Newcastle jaunt

On Friday I drove from Leicester to Newcastle, to meet artist Yvette Hawkins, and to see an exhibition of a year-long project she has run, entitled Book Apothecary.  Book Apothecary is a series of old suitcases, filled with artists’ books and objects – things that challenge and make us think about the ways in which objects are kept, how they are kept and so on.  Yvette was recommended to me by Sheila McGregor at Axis, as someone whose work questions the role of museums, curating, collecting, and so on – all those questions that Mouseion hopes to grapple with.  This project consists of work created by young people as part of a Cultural Olympiad project, funded by NE Generation, as well as works by artist mentors.

Book Apothecary at Stevenson Works, Newcastle

The suitcases (there are 16 in all), range from ones specifically bookish, to others more object-based, to mechanical, to sound pieces, to memory, history and engagement focussed ones.  Two of the other artists involved in the project are Dawn Felicia Knox and Theresa Easton, both of whose work is highly curatorial/museumy, object-centred, about collecting, engaging with, sensing and displaying things – and ties in perfectly with the Mouseion themes too.  There are a few logistical issues to overcome (some of the work is on show at the Great North Museum until the day before Mouseion’s installation), but I am hoping that the case in Mouseion will reflect something of the cabinet-like quality that I saw at the ‘Curious Case of’ exhibition.

Dawn Felicia Knox -Installation in ‘The Curious Case Of’ at Great North Museum

Anyway, Yvette had invited me to the NE Generation Preview Launch Event at Stevenson Works, which showcased all the different young people’s projects from Newcastle and the North East – including the Stories of the World museum projects, other museum ones – and some amazing peformances of street dancing and dancing with fire, art projects, video/VJ projections, hacking an XBox.  Part of the funding had even paid for a disused church to become a circus school.  Amazing and very inspiring stuff – let’s hope that there really is a legacy for all these cultural olympiad participants.  I miss that sort of working with young people at the moment.  Even though I had no idea who the people referred to in the speeches were, it was quite a special and life-affirming moment – and the people were incredibly friendly and welcoming.  I like Newcastle.  Its Persian restaurants are good too.

So after a late night, my mission for the following day was to see all sorts of things.  Of course to visit the above-mentioned exhibition at the Great North Museum (formerly the Hancock, and recently done up) – loved the museum.  Then pottered to the MFA Show at Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery just over the road on Newcastle’s lovely red brick campus – a vast labyrinthine space with installations, constructions (Sam Thorpe’s rescued boat brought from Exeter and somehow taken down flights of stairs to the studio), film (Isabel Lima’s Contact Zone – performance on the beach), paintings (Bernie Clarkson) – and lots more besides – including an interesting foray into finding out about Kurt Schwitters and his Merzbarn Wall.  But, time was of the essence as my aim of the day was to see Janet Cardiff’s 40-part motet at BALTIC.

Walking through Newcastle there was some sort of world music festival – very jovial – with South American performers (when will I get to Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador?), and then I headed down to the water where there was another festival of speedboat dexterity or something – before which though I went into the Side Gallery – to see a wonderful – both uplifting and depressing photographic exhibition of work by Lynsey Addario – Veiled Rebellion: Women in Afghanistan.  Was incredibly powerful and moving to see women’s (in)visibility – ranging from trainee teachers sharing a picnic in the park, to a woman whose nose had been cut off, to an elderly woman surrounded by poppy heads, addicted to opium. I’ve forgotten the percentage of opium addicts in Afghanistan, but it is enormous.

I had to wait for the Millennium Bridge to tilt – a wonderful sight – and glad I got there just in time to see it – and then crossed to BALTIC, where having seen Richard Rigg’s Clearing (a mountain hut with the actual mountain terrain reconstructed inside it), I started at the top, on the viewing platform (with OWL projects soundscape) and then made my way down – to Mark Wallinger’s commissioned pieces – spectacular chessboard with 10000000000000000 (binary form of 658,336 – or something?!) pebbles were placed on the squares, while in another piece, bricks were numbered in chalk, similar to his ‘MARK’ graffiti pieces across London, and a film in which scaffolders put up scaffolding to construct something (what?) on the shingle beach as the sea lapped around them – but then to the piece I have been wanting to experience since first hearing colleagues talk about it when it was in the Millennium Galleries in Sheffield back in 2004, alas, just before I worked there and I never saw it.  Since then, I have sung Thomas Tallis’ 40 Part Motet, Spem in Alium with the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus in 2008 – I think one of the most beautiful pieces of music in the world – but also incredibly hard to sing with so many parts, and its 8 choirs (I think)…  It’s Sam’s most favourite piece of contemporary art.

Well, being immersed in the middle of Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet was incredible.  I couldn’t not well up and soon tears were pouring – why?  Sound sometimes has a much more visceral effect than the visual or any other sense.  The speakers become the singers – person-height, and as is signature with Janet Cardiff’s work, the quality of the recording is so rich.  Fragile voices, the choristers of Salisbury Cathedral (with its personal resonances), and the wonder at being able to wander and listen to single parts, hearing breaths, swallowing, notes less confident.  But overall warm, rich, outpourings that hit you right there (where is there?) – beautiful and from somewhere else. Is that why it makes you cry?  I wonder if this piece is more powerful for singers?

And then, after 11 minutes of singing, the conductor stops, and silence reigns.  But the silence is not silence.  For in it, you can hear the coughs, splutters, inane conversation, the reaching for water, the making notes in the copy, the discussion about what is happening next…  And I wondered if some people didn’t notice that.  You had to get up close to the speakers to hear this inner world.  I think that is why Janet Cardiff is such a genius – she plays with interiority and exteriority – just as she did at the Hauptbahnhof at Documenta.  And it was worth every second.


(Photos of my day are on Flickr here and here – I will work out how to embed a slideshow one day…)

print it*

On Friday 24 August, as a special treat for completing the first draft of interpretation text for the Mouseion exhibition (much on that to follow), I went to Sheffield’s Site Gallery to see the current exhibition, print it*.

Print it exhibition at Site Gallery, Sheffield

Exhibition layout and design

It’s a combination of several projects, but includes a stunning exhibition of printed books and other print press works on paper, created by Coracle Press between 1989-2012. Coracle Press is based in Ireland right now, but I think originated in Norfolk (not least as the title of the touring exhibition and its stunning accompanying book is ‘Printed in Norfolk’).  Simon Cutts is its founder (or one of them?)- and his simple, beautiful, both profound and warm words reflect the aesthetic of the printed material.  I like his poem, ‘le Marche’ (with an ‘e’ acute, as in ‘market’, not ‘march’, but can’t work out how to do the accent – I should have a printing press, not a computer, then I could sort through the letters and find the things I need manually…)

I looked for                                                                                                                               a lettuce                                                                                                                                  but bought                                                                                                                               a petticoat

(Simon Cutts in RGAP 2012 Printed in Norfolk: Coracle Publications 1989-2012, Research Group for Artist Publications, Sheffield, p.25).  Brings to mind wandering through Breton markets, eating crepes with my grandmother as my mother looked on, horrified that we were eating on the street…

Back to print it*.  The visual quality of the exhibition is stunning: minimal interpretation, simply presented, and also tactile: visitors can actually pick up and read the books, postcards, invitations and so on.  Which means that I spent a lot longer time in there absorbing things than I would have done had I not been able to pick things up.  And it really made me want to do some printing – of words, images, thoughts and ideas.  And of course, since I am curating the Mouseion exhibition in Leicester’s School of Museum Studies at the moment, it gave me a lot of food for thought and ideas to send to my PhD colleague and friend Cy Shih, who is the designer of the exhibition – I’d love to keep it with this printing press feel – with thick textured paper or card, creams and deep browns.  Further exhibition images show more detail of some of the works.

In addition to the Norfolk exhibition, the team at Site had also produced a Pop-Up Artist Bookshop – which incorporated many of the things from the exhibition, by Coracle Press, as well as from other printing studios around the world.  Something that I found incredibly moving was Susan Howe’s ‘Poems from a Pioneer Museum’, copied below from the website:

Poems From A Pioneer Museum


Susan Howe 2009

32 letterpress cards printed on Canaletto Liscio paper
in binders box 130 x 100. 300 copies I copied these poems, almost verbatim, from typed identification cards placed beside items in display cases at Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Memorial Museum founded in 1901 by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers. The artifacts and memorabilia in their collection date from 1847 when Mormon settlers first entered the Valley of the Great Salt Lake until the joining of the railroads at Promontory Point, Utah in 1869.

An extravagant purchase I couldn’t resist.  Not only is it a gorgeous series of printed cards, it is in a green baize box – a proper museum object of museum objects and catalogue entries.  I love it.  Useful (for teaching, example giving, idea generation) but also a nice THING.  And this purchase didn’t fulfil my desire to possess things entirely either – so I ended up with a stack of things in addition to the catalogue: some Erica van Horn postcards and a book ‘Rusted: Six Small Iron Articles of Unknown Use – found and drawn Ballybeg 2004′ – I think that this would complement Hazel Jones’ A1 Scrap Metal project.


Erica Van Horn 2004

16pp laser and letterpress in two colours, sewn with wrappers 150 x 105.100 numbered copies.2nd edition of 150 copies 2007


And ‘The Die is Cast’ by Caroline Bergvall & Nick Thurston – a book of sayings and proverbs which have been merged and mixed together through the pagination and binding of the book – which Karl & Kimberley Foster would like in their Object Dialogue Box ‘first aid kits’ – how phrases can set and spark the imagination…  ‘You can’t judge a / spade’ or ‘Call a spade a / book by its cover’.  It is strange how everything I am currently doing in my PhD and extra-PhD world seems to have been whizzing through my head while I looked at this exhibition – its design, content, interpretation, objects, reasons, people, ideas.  Everything is interlinked.  Always.

Another artist’s book that I bought was Chloe Brown’s ‘Coming Ready Or Not’, which although written in 2000, before I knew her, is a little reminder (of some of the better days of that rather hellish project we ran together – another story…).

So that was my journey into printing and presses, poetry and purity, words both intangible and tangible.


Final Day of CIHA 2012

Friday 20th July – back to conference papers all day.  Started in Section 18 – The Absence of the Object and the Void – for Burcu Dogramaci’s introduction to the topic, followed by Jessamyn Conrad on ‘Absence as Presence’ – the mihrab as a means to and metaphor for the transcendent God in Islam.  Her paper took in several examples of mihrab niches in mosques around the world – a frame that defines emptiness.  I thought this was an interesting topic to explore, but thought there were some aspects skirted over too quickly, and comments such as the Islamic god being omnipresent as a contrast with the Christian and Hindu god – which I disagree with.  I spoke to her afterwards and suggested she looks at Denys Turner’s Darkness of God, and Mark McIntosh’s Mystical Theology, as I think what she was exploring in Islamic architecture was similar to paradoxes of apophatic and cataphatic theology and metaphor – and in such a way, what she is saying about the mihrab, is similar to some of my own thinking about museum objects.

I then whizzed to Section 11: The Artefact and its Representations for the end of a paper about second life, by Lisa Mansfield, followed by an incongruous presentation from Sandra Klopper (South Africa) about Falko, a hip-hop artist who makes split pieces across sites, using Flickr to display his work – so a part may be ‘traditional’ wall graffiti, while some might be sprayed onto a vehicle and then driven into place.  Very inspiring, and interesting that part of his funding came from the British Council for a project called ‘The Darling Made me do it’ which was an attempt to work with a very poor community to transform the neighbourhood.  I’m not sure what the legacy was after the project, and why the local people were initially hostile – it did feel somewhat exploitative.

After coffee, Section 15, Charged Sites.  A voyage from Tianenmen’s gate to heaven (although without mentioning the Tianenmen Square massacre, because ‘the paper is about the gate, not the square’) by Yan Geng in which I learnt more than I have ever known about Chinese history as she focussed on 3 periods of the gate’s existence: 1) Imperial China 1368-1912; 2) Republican Period 1912-1949; 3) People’s Republic 1949-.  It was fascinating particularly to see how images of Mao were used on this monument which had initially been an imperial statement.  Then the voyage took us to Belgrade and a paper by Nenad Makuljevic on the city through its torn past from Ottoman to Habsburg to Serbian state in the C17th-19th.  Fascinating.  It really struck me too that it was the NATO bombs in the 1990s that destroyed Belgrade’s most important monuments that had survived a turbulent history up to this point.  Was this an ‘urbicide’ – destruction and rebuilding of a city? (And now I have been to Berlin too, it feels similar there).  The final paper in this trio was Anna Minta talking about contested spaces in Jerusalem – a city that belongs to nobody and everybody.  Even thought this section wasn’t really relevant to my own work, I learnt so much, and literally felt I had been on a trip to those countries.

After lunch spent talking to people about my poster and the work of others, I went to my one and only Durer session, by postgraduate section organiser Anna Grebe – a brilliant paper on Durer relics, and the kitsch-ness of emblems of Durer, such as the praying hands (later seen in Berlin’s Museum der Dinge which illustrated the point very well).  Following that, I attended Rudolpf Frieling’s ‘The Museum as Producer’.  The next presenter was unwell, so I went back to Section 18 for Christina Vasconcelos de Almeida’s paper on the object archiving its own absence.  We went on a journey to Teshima Island in Japan to see Christian Boltansky’s archives – requiring a pilgrimage to get there, record one’s heartbeat.

The final papers were Mark Cheetham on The Absent Objects of EcoArt – on land art and eco art and the differences between them – but really I enjoyed just seeing the visual images and travelling to far flung places.  He talked about Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass (now at LACMA) and its 340 tonne and $100 million progress from the desert to the museum, the director saying “there won’t be a single adult who won’t want to experience this object” (!)  This was followed by what was deemed more successful as it was obviously artificial, Eliasson’s sun at Tate, Robert Morris’ Earthworks, Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, James Turrell’s Roden Crater, Mark Dion’s Neukom Vivarium, Roni Horn’s VATNASFN.  And last but not least, Nicole Sully on the World Trade Centre, and Unbuilding in the Void which painted an interesting architectural history in which the twin towers (built 1966-76) were hated with only one article written in their favour, and a 1964 campaign against their construction due to unsightliness, getting in the way of migrating birds, TV signals etc.  Taking us on a chronological journey through acclaim, disrepute, symbolism, and finally redemption, the towers myth was painted, but with the ultimate memorial being for the PEOPLE, not for the building.

The farewell evening for postgraduates followed back at the museum – more pretzls and champagne, followed by the final speeches and handing on of the banner to Beijing for the next CIHA 2016 event.  All 400 lectures and 70 posters will be published.  A wonderful experience, incredibly well-organised, superbly funded, and really interesting new contacts made and new places to go as a result.  I am very grateful to the CIHA Postgraduate Programme for this wonderful opportunity.


Catching Up – Day 4, CIHA 2012

Thursday of the conference was slightly different for me: the section papers during the day weren’t so directly relevant to my own research, and there were lots of things to see in Nuremberg, but I also wanted to attend the postgraduate papers during the lunch break, and of course the keynote speech by Dr Ulrich Grossmann in the evening.  So, careful planning meant that first thing, I went by bus to the Nazi Party Rally Grounds Documentation Centre.  An eery experience: the building itself looks like the Nazi salute. My first impressions were disappointing, as it was crammed full of noisy students.  I was unable to be given an audio guide as there were too many school groups there who were using them.  This was a shame, not least because the documentation was all in German, and it needed description to understand, but also many of the school children weren’t even using their guides and were messing about, and while I think it’s vital that they visit and learn about histories, the person on the welcome desk could have been a bit more welcoming and explained the situation or offered the option of buying the guidebook – especially since the audio guide is a key part of the exhibition as described on the website.

As it was, the space that I found most moving was the current temporary exhibition by artist Linda Ellia, Notre Combat on ‘Mein Kampf’.  Communities had been given pages from Hitler’s book to deface, add to, reflect on – and the resulting artworks were amazing – very powerful and interestingly curated and themed.  I had the whole red brick, dark space to myself.  The other temporary exhibition on the Art School’s responses to National Socialism was also fascinating (with interesting display techniques too).  The actual ‘Fascination and Terror’ starts with a strange film of two contemporary teenagers skate-boarding through the park, and peering into some of the Nazi Party spaces, with flashbacks to period films of the rallies.  And then the main exhibition takes you chronologically through this bleak period of history.

I then raced back to Messe for the postgraduate lunchtime papers: head full of history, and a bit out of conference mode…  I missed the first paper, but arrived to hear Julia Szekely’s interesting paper about Budapest’s socialist statues all having been moved to the ‘sculpture park’ there as a business venture for tourists, rather than as a historical memory.  She was followed by Julia Ariza from Argentina looking at visual representations of women in C20th Argentinian periodicals.  Corina Meyer was next with her paper on controversies around acceptance or rejection of Lippi’s conserved work in Frankfurt – she was an excellent story-teller.  Sarah Maupeu from Cologne then gave a fascinating and really relevant paper for my own interests – about ‘primitive art’ – or whether anthropology is/should be displayed aesthetically or contextually.  She compared the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris (aesthetic lighting, little context, information separate from aesthetics) with the Rauchenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne (one room displayed aesthetically, others contextual – also questions museum display in a self-reflexive way), and the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt (contemporary artists as ethnographers).  Her research is more broadly about the mystification of museum objects and so I am looking forward to further discussions about this.  Marie Yasunuga from the University of Tokyo gave a similarly fascinating paper on displaying non-western objects in art museums, focussing on the Folkwang Museum, Hagen 1902 by Karl Ernst Osthaus.  I wonder if she has visited the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich as this might be a useful comparison site.  The penultimate paper was by Stephanie Rozman from Minnesota, on Ananda Coomaraswamy as the most prolific historian of South Asian art in the early C20th.  Finally, John Tyson (whose poster was displayed next to mine – but I was never sure how we’d been displayed, and whether there were sub-themes?) – talked about Hans Haacke’s Ready-Mades and his invertion of Duchamp’s ready-mades into ready-mades.  I mentioned that Janet Marstine has done work that might be useful for him.

After this, I went back to the Germanisches National Museum for a proper look around, particularly spending time in the wonderful family gallery for the Durer exhibition – which had a real object and sensory focus, was a highly visual space that was not dumbed down in any way – very impressive, and reinforced the high opinion I formed of the education department the day before.  I got totally lost in this amazing museum, exploring Folk Art, Musical Instruments, Medieval Religious Sculpture and the Toy section – but also, could not find the C20th century collection (or understand it may have been closed).  I also revisited the Durer exhibition, looking closely at the beautiful cow’s nose.

The evening saw the wide-ranging keynote presentation, The Challenge of the Object from the conference convenor and General Director of the museum.  Dr Ulrich Grossmann started by exploring art historical definitions of ‘object’, only to discover that it’s a word not really defined in the discipline at all.  He explored several key ideas: that it could be the material object, or the object/subject of the discipline, and then cleverly wound his way through most of the section themes from the whole conference – looking at reproductions of objects, thinking about the need to constantly reevaluate the object using scientific techniques, thinking about religious objects, the differences between museum and university responses to the object, issues around restitution, authenticity, tourism and objects, nothingness of objects and issues of contemporary/performance art – where is the object?, global art history and internationalisation…

And then in a late night film showing ‘Der Hof’ by Viktoria Schmidt-Linsenhoff, I was absolutely enraptured by the story of Issa Samb: a post to follow eventually about the film.

Day off (or not!)

Today was the postgraduate programme workshop day.  I attended two workshops on a similar theme – objects in museum education – but the two sessions were so different from each other.  The first, led by Dr Jessica Mack-Andrick, Deputy Head of Learning at the Germanishes National Museum was a useful overview of museum learning and theory, visitor studies, open-ended visual literacy, and the approaches used by the museum were demonstrated in really practical tasks and activities around ‘seeing is thinking’ ideas.  Some of these were very similar to work taking place in many art museums in the UK – for example using objects to make links with collections, doing detective work around stories and narratives in paintings, looking at the moods in portraits and pairing them with objects/other portraits in a very imaginative way, and finally a discursive ‘memory’ activity where after 5 minutes of gazing at a painting, hot-spots could be identified as to which areas both you/your partner could recall and why they stood out.  I really enjoyed working with a diverse range of people – many of whom had worked in museum education but others who had not, and sharing this really open-ended way of working with art historians for whom this is probably something ver far removed from formal qualities and historical context of works.  The initial activity, looking and deciphering the large entrance hall work: Rheinsberg’s Hauptstadt – found signs from when East German Berlin street signs were replaced to match the West – or unified ones – was a really interesting exercise too.  What did it mean?  What could we learn or find out?

The second workshop was at the contemporary art Neues Museum and led by freelance artist educator Jan Burmester.  The group was somewhat complex in that a couple of other workshops had amalgamated into one due to staff illness, and this was a bit unfortunate as people’s expectations were too diverse and unmanageable in a two hour slot (some wanted purely art historical tours of the current exhibition).  Nevertheless, it was fascinating to contrast the education programmes at this contemporary white cube space, with those in the traditional space of the morning.  And actually the programme came across as much more ‘traditional’ in the new space.  Perhaps still in its infancy (after 12 years), but there was a sense that the style may be somewhat didactic (despite the very best open-ended and discursive intentions of the educator) – workshop activities sounded like fun ways to explore artists’ processes (e.g. paper collage a la Bridget Riley, and photo-based cartoon portrait a la Julian Opie), but as yet there is no sign of learning staff ever working together with curators to instigate exhibitions, or develop interpretation (there is hardly any), and certainly audience involvement in curating is a distant dream of the freelance team.  It seems a shame that in the most modern architectural gem, there is still such a hierarchy of ways of working.  Family activities are just for the children on a Sunday, while their parents disappear.  A place full of politics.  I really enjoyed chatting to Jan though – and wish him all the very best in what must be a tricky environment to work in.

And because today was our ‘day off’, I of course crammed as many other visits in as I could.  So lunchtime included a visit to the Toy Museum – full of wonderful Noah’s Arks just like Mary Greg’s, also dolls, teddies, toys, railways, meccano and games.  The things that struck me the most were the games from the 1940s – in a section called ‘Out of the Rubble’ – all relating to the context, ‘make do and mend’, and reflecting the reality (such as a rubble shovelling lorry).  And of course some of the toys I remember, such as little Peekachoo monkeys from the early 80s (called something else here).  Lunch on the run (more pretzel) – and then after the second workshop, I had a cup of tea and piece of apple cake (although it seemed to also come with another cake as well which I think was free as part of a Kaffe und Kuchen deal with the tea?) – so I was rather piggy but had a nice sit down.  Then headed up to the Kaiserberg – amazing castle with lots of different parts to it, stunning views over the city and beautiful gardens.  Very brief pop into the museum there too (lots of arms and armour), then I headed to the Durer House Museum which was fantastic.  A stunning house, but also not only a wonderful exhibition of Durer’s studio and artistic techniques, paint pigments, printing press and so on, but also, I was so pleased to see the most wonderful exhibition of work by children mainly from Charkiw in the Ukraine (I think twinned with Nuremberg maybe?), based on Durer’s paintings and prints.  I hope those children were able to see their works hung in pride of place in the home of Durer himself.  What an honour.  Delighted to see that it had been extended since April too.  Dinner  – salad and lots of it – in nice little place by the Museum Bridge and then hotel bound.